Climate Change Hits Conflict Zones Harder: Syria Case Study

The impact of global warming has been linked to the severity of droughts, water scarcity, and food shortages in war-torn Syria, but now an internationally recognized expert on water resources has identified climate change as a factor contributing to political turmoil in the region.

Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, made the connection between climate change and war during a 1 June panel entitled “Exacerbating Effects of Climate Change in Conflict Zones” that was part of a full-day symposium, "The Role of Science Diplomacy in International Crises: Syria as a Case Study," organized by the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows Science Diplomacy Affinity Group.

 

From left, Colin P. Kelley, Peter Gleick, and Joel Creswell at the "The Role of Science Diplomacy in International Crises: Syria as a Case Study" symposium. | Juan David Romero

Gleick said while climate change did not set off the Syrian conflict, it has exacerbated the harshness of droughts with all the attendant consequences, including diminished agricultural and economic productivity. Those factors have inflamed social and political unrest in Syria.

“No one is arguing that the Syrian civil war is a climate change or water-caused conflict. The conflict in Syria has political, religious, and ethnic roots that go back thousands of years,” Gleick said. “The argument is about influencing factors that contributed to the conflict in Syria.”

Syria is in the Fertile Crescent, an agricultural area that also includes Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and northern Egypt, a region that is experiencing the most prolonged drought in modern history, Gleick said.

The drought that began in 2006 ranks as one of the region’s worst in almost 1,000 years. Gleick attributed the scope of the drought to climate change in a region known as a “climate change hot spot.” Increased temperatures trigger more evaporation from reservoirs, and accelerate water loss from soils needed for agricultural production – all factors that boost demand for water, he added.

The drought struck at a time when regional population levels were growing, which, in turn, put more demands on regional economic systems. Those forces mixed with longstanding ethnic and religious conflicts to render the region even more vulnerable to war.

“In Syria ineffective management practices, crop failure, and weak government response combined to exacerbate the societal effects of the drought,” said Joel Creswell, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and one of the organizers of the symposium. Creswell added that this resulted in a drop in agricultural productivity, which led 1.5 million people to migrate from historically agriculturally rich rural areas of the country to urban areas, where economic opportunities were and remain limited.

The Fertile Crescent has been plagued with scarce water resources throughout history, Gleick said, adding that the region also has a long history of conflicts over water.

Indeed, one of the earliest entries in the Water Conflict Chronology Map was a conflict over irrigation canals in ancient Mesopotamia around 720-705 B.C., when Sargon II of Assyria destroyed the irrigation network of the Halidians of Armenia. 

 

The Water Chronology interactive map shows water-related conflicts all over the globe from 3,000 B.C. to 2015. Click here to watch. | Pacific Institute Water Conflict Chronology, 2016

Collin P. Kelley, senior research fellow at the Center for Climate & Security, a non-partisan security and foreign policy institute, called for more research to help regions better manage diminished water resources and to help better forecast water shortages to allow plans to be put into action. He added additional research could also deepen our understanding of why water conflicts sometimes lead states to fail, while others cooperate and find solutions.

Water shortages are being felt around the world yet impacts vary in different places, said Gleick, adding that the human, economic, and environmental costs of doing nothing, especially in the face of climate change and environmental security threats, are high and require “new thinking.”

In his view, nations and regions have access to examples of relatively good regulatory and legislative structures to address conflicts and the allocation of water resources among competing states. For example, he cited the Colorado River, which the United States and Mexico share under a joint-management structure first established by the 1944 Water Treaty.

However, Gleick argues, some legislative and regulatory tools are impractical for regions experiencing economic dislocations due to agricultural disruptions and drought.  

Gleick called on impacted nations to put in place innovative programs that address the specific problems facing their country, saying fresh diplomatic approaches are necessary “for reducing the other kinds of water-related risks and broadly the other kinds of climate-related risks that I think we’re going to see in the future.”

“If we’re talking about the role of water and drought in Syria, we really need to think about how water intersects with energy, which intersects with the politics, which intersects with international law — all of these are related, so even as scientists we have to consider all of these issues together,” said Nick Anthis, co-organizer and a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow.

Gleick said mitigating the adverse effects of climate change will require scalable, institutional, and socially responsible solutions along with smarter diplomacy.

[Associated image licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0